Saturday, April 11, 2015

Being Wrong About Being Right

Being right is important. Really, really important. I expend a lot of energy and thought in thinking through the issues that concern the church. That is not an admission that will get you invited to the hip church conferences or get lots of links back to your blog from people who are more into "nuance" but it is critically important, especially today.

I was prompted to think about the "how" of being "right" as much as the foundational belief behind it. Is it enough to be "right" or do we need to be cautious about what that looks like? Examining my own behavior and the behavior of others leads me to believe that we need, especially on the conservative end, to constantly look at how we put into practice the doctrines we have correctly worked out. There is also a real need to constantly examine what we believe to make sure we are really right but that is a topic for a different day. In this post I am looking at how a specific group, the conservative Anabaptists, deal with the "being right" issue.

I do a lot of poking at "progressive" neo-Anabaptist types but lest I be accused of playing favorites I have plenty of concerns about the conservative, traditional Anabaptists. Some of it is doctrinal. I think that in some (and one in particular) areas we see holdovers from the early days of Anabaptism when they didn't have the time to work through some issues. A lot more of it has to do with the way they relate behaviorally to the rest of the church. To generalize, I think that the conservative Anabaptists errors are (mostly) in the area of behavior while the progressive neo-Anabaptist errors are mostly in the realm of theology.

The conservatives tend to be split along a spectrum of "conservatism" from "Old Order" toward "worldly". To a typical evangelical Christian the difference is unfathomable. One group looks a lot like the others. The differences tend to be largely externals as far as I can tell. Women wearing one-piece dresses with a yoke versus a skirt and blouse, that sort of thing. I have been around enough conservative Anabaptists to sort of see the difference but they do appear monolithic to the rest of the church and more critically the seem less than welcoming. That doesn't mean unloving or unfriendly, just not fully welcoming without a commitment to complete conformity.

It is ironic that a group historically known for non-conformity is now a largely conformist group. The neo-Anabaptists are uniform in their positions that line up with the world and the conservatives are conformist to a set of externals that make them seem alien. Being alien to the world is one thing, but being alien to the rest of the church is a different question. I was reminded of this the other day from a post on Facebook. The writer, Dwight Gingrich (and I recently came across his blog and really appreciate it, as it is one of the few blogs from a conservative Anabaptist perspective out there) linked to another blog, The Brown Brink. The post in question is The Freedom of Simplicity and examines her reasons for not wearing jewelry or make-up. This was the quote that stood out for Dwight:
Multiple times in the past few months I have been asked about my choice to fore-go make-up and jewelry (other than a simple wedding band).
What about that was of note to Dwight? This is a sister in Christ who dresses very modestly and has thought through the issue. She covers her head. She wear no make-up or jewelry beyond a wedding band. Dwight wrote:
This woman has a wonderful testimony of a heart and life turned toward Christ. Yet she would not be welcomed, as she is now, as a member in any church where I have been a member. How should I feel about this? What should I do about it?
That is the issue I want to look at and call out to my conservative brethren. While this sister would get strange and possible hostile looks in "progressive" churches for looking so "conservative", she would also not be considered appropriately dressed in many conservative Anabaptist groups because she wears a wedding ring. I am not making that up as we have direct experience with this. A while back while seeking fellowship with local Christians we began meeting with a great group of Christians that exhibited a lot of the practices we were seeking. We were invited to have dinner with their pastor after a bit and that night sticks with me. Not for the fellowship of the table but for something else. What I remember from that evening was that he didn't seem all that interested in our testimony or how they as a fellowship could minister to us. What he mostly seemed concerned with was whether my wife's headcovering was the "right" kind and especially in pointing out that the wearing of wedding rings was frowned upon. Our full acceptance required conformity to a series of externals that, even if legitimate, were hard and fast lines. There was no grace in growing in sanctification, just a list of the rules you had to meet. After that evening and a series of clashes over other issues we walked away with heavy hearts. I had no desire to be a source of conflict in a local gathering but the memory of that event still stings.

Conservative Anabaptists tend to be very focused on the externals. Do you have a TV? Do you listen to worldly music? Is your attire too fashionable? I understand why this is the case. Looking back at the history of Anabaptism in America in the 20th century shows a great deal of schism and a lot of it can be traced to the embrace of liberalizing influences. The reaction from conservatives was to erect more and more barriers to keep people from drifting off into liberalism, while the "progressives" seemed to take great pains to move as far away from the conservative Anabaptists as possible. Today the two streams of Anabaptist look nothing alike. It is not a stretch to say that other than sharing the name, the progressives and conservatives exist in two separate worlds. I clearly find much more affinity with the conservatives but even still as an "outsider" I have concerns.

If you are overly focused on external particulars, even if they are legitimate and important, it probably masks a deeper issue in your heart. Do you primarily see other Christians as people to be kept away from "your people" lest they infect them? Or do you see them as brothers and sisters who, while not in the same place you are, you welcome and walk beside as the grow in Christ? Don't get me wrong, elders have a responsibility to model correct doctrine and correct error. But the church is not "your" church, it is His church. His people should therefore be welcome, not a conditional welcome but just welcomed as family ought to be welcome.

One of the great balancing acts in the church is to have and hold seriously convictions on secondary but important topics while allowing people the grace to grow in understanding. Since the incident I referenced above, my wife and I have stopped wearing our wedding rings. Not because we were guilted or extorted into doing so but because that was the conviction we came to, just as we did on the issue of headcovering. I don't know that I have the answer and I really can't answer this question for them. All I know is that creating barriers to fellowship with the rest of the church is not healthy for anyone involved. It creates theological in-breeding where some issues are just assumed because no one questions them. It foster theological and denominational xenophobia toward other Christians. It keep "regular" Christians from fellowshipping with these wonderful Christians in the conservative Anabaptist branch of the church and in turn means that these Anabaptists are mostly a curiosity to be gawked at rather than a robust and active part of the church.

The challenge I put forth to my brothers in the conservative Anabaptist camp is this: spend some time in serious consideration of how you interact with the rest of the church (or if you even do so at all!). Think about how to extend grace to others who may not historically be part of Anabaptism but are interested to learn more. Remember that you are one part of a larger whole. The church has much to offer and teach one another. Don't reject that rich treasure for the sake of a simple wedding band or the lack of a headcover. In the days to come we are all going to need one another more than we have for hundreds of years. This is no time for walling ourselves off from one another.


Anonymous said...

Focus on externals is definitely the weakness of modern (conservative) interpretations of Anabaptism. However, it cannot be removed from a society that has excused all kinds of unrighteousness in the name of tolerance and love. It is also a response to a view of faith that does away with any need to modify behavior and celebrates God's grace like an excuse to continue on in sin. Unfortunately, prescriptions for outward appearance never do get to the heart of the issue and some who dress plainly relative to others are no less sinful under the veneer of 'appropriate attire' than their 'worldly' neighbors. Faith does change everything we do, but conforming to a church standard is not the same as transformed and full of the Spirit.

Anonymous said...

One other thing is that many in this conservative Anabaptist culture do question whether those outside of their own standards are Christian. Sure, they may believe there is a remnant outside of their own tradition and that has yet to come to full understanding of the Gospel of modest dress, etc. But as far as recognizing the whole body of other denominations as legitimate, I think many conservative Anabaptists would hesitate and even openly question it. In their own understanding, how could a person be a Christian and allow jewelry, loss of gender distinct clothing, etc. I think the problem goes deeper than distinctive or traditional dress, I think it starts much more fundamentally...

Faith to them (and many other fundamentalist types) is something based in history and interpretation of a book into fixed positions. It is actually not at all a faith like that of Abraham, Moses, David or Paul. It is not a faith in God. It is faith in books, faith in institutions and faith in our own ability to know we are right.

Arthur Sido said...

There is a sense in which some conservative Anabaptists look with skepticism at the salvation claims of other Christians. I think a lot of this has to do with a general failing on their part collectively to flesh out their theology.

Sometimes it seems almost as if the order is reversed. Rather than the Holy Spirit working to change the heart which leads to a change in life, they try to regulate the outward life in the assumption that this will lead to a changed heart. I don't think many would agree with that statement in principal but it certainly can tend to look that way in practice.

Dwight Gingrich said...

Arthur, I want to thank you here for this post. Your insights and questions are helpful to those of us who are thinking from inside our Anabaptist heritage, but as members of Christ's church. You have spoken boldly, but with a boldness born of love. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As one of the more conservative in most circles i associate with, I often wonder when the day will dawn, that the rest of Christianity will be willing to concede conservatives have anything of value at all. I feel so continually talked down to and despised, that it does become a burden to accept and legitimize the excesses and disobedience of more progressive mindsets.

Unknown said...

Hi Arthur,
I saw your link from Dwight's Facebook page. As a former "conservative" Mennonite turned "progressive" I find your comments interesting. Much of my academic work has focused on Mennonite spirituality an area that has had little research and is significantly different from Protestant or evangelical spirituality across all Mennonite groups.

Your observation that conservative Anabaptists have "reversed the order" is insightful and true to my own research. It is not that Anabaptist-Mennonites don't believe in the Holy Spirit to the same degree that evangelicals do, but there is a difference. Mennonites come from an ascetic tradition that has more in common with Catholicism than Protestantism. Anabaptist-Mennonites definitely view ascetic practice as a way to bring change to the inner life. The outer life changes the inner life and that is why they emphasize outer conformity so much. In this regard they are monastic like and in fact all the early major Reformers accused Anabaptists of being "monkish".

This is a kind of "sacramentality" in which God works through the ordinariness of the material reality to bring about inner conversion. A further example of this is the historic Anabaptist view that God is "really" present in the gathered community. Whereas the Catholic church views God as "really" present in the bread and wine, Mennonites have historically viewed Christ as present in the faithful community. Furthermore, God is working through humanity to bring about a total christlikeness, a change in one's being.

All of this can/may seem unfathomable to an evangelical who has been taught from Luther on that the only way to change is though imputed righteousness. Luther's view assumes a very different anthropology than a Catholic or Mennonite one. In a Lutheran perspective humanity is only capable of being imputed or infused with righteousness; if I understand this right it means that the person is not necessarily righteous but God simply sees them as righteous. In traditional Anabaptist perspective humanity is being remade in being; people "really" change (sacramental - God works through the material and ordinariness of life) and grow into the likeness of Christ. One of the ways this happens is through ascetic reforming of the outer life to bring about a renewal of the inner life. This is based on nearly 1500 years of Christian theology and practice up to the Reformation when there was a rending of ways. Read the church fathers and mothers or the theologians and spiritual writers. This is also similar to the Eastern Christian tradition of theosis in which there is a divinization of humanity.

Sorry - this is a rather long post and doesn't do justice to the topic - there is so much more to understand. Hopefully this might help to point to the reality that there are some fundamental differences between a Mennonite and evangelical view, though I have argued in other places that conservative Mennonites have been largely influenced by evangelicalism. Blessings on your spiritual journey!